Dammed Columbia rolls emotions

DEEP SIGNIFICANCE: Lake Chelan, more than 80km long, is the largest natural lake in Washington state.
DEEP SIGNIFICANCE: Lake Chelan, more than 80km long, is the largest natural lake in Washington state.

Never underestimate the power of cheap music. And I do mean cheap: US$10 is a bargain for a song, especially one that's lasted almost 70 years and is still enough of an earworm to make a 240-kilometre round-trip seem like an appealing drive. What else were we to do, after all, having missed our plane by, it turned out, almost a week?

Lake Chelan, in the state of Washington, is tucked into the North Cascade Mountains which divide the luxuriant rainforest of the Pacific Northwest from the arid plains of the mid-west. Deep and blue, it stretches 88 kilometres from the small, neat town at its base, where murals celebrate the apple-growing industry.

It's a pretty place, popular with holiday-makers in winter for its many Nordic skiing trails, and in summer for tramping, fishing and water sports - but we had come for the scenic flight to the far end of the lake to Stehekin. No roads run to this remote settlement, its only access being by boat and floatplane through spectacular scenery. A hiccup in planning, however, means that by the time of our mid-October arrival, the service has closed for the season.

Poring over the map for alternative attractions, Grand Coulee snags our attention, coming with its own soundtrack: Woody Guthrie's song Roll On, Columbia. A snatch of the lyrics surface from ancient memory: "The big Grand Coulee Dam in the state of Washington / is just about the biggest thing that man has ever done". Plan B is settled.

At first the route leads past vineyards, and orchards busy with pickers on ladders. Washington is America's biggest producer of apples: originally dependent on just two varieties, red and golden delicious, the industry has benefited from New Zealand's expertise - and braeburn, jazz and gala are now widely grown and highly regarded.

Climbing up away from the lake, we cross the accurately named scablands; only sagebrush and wiry grass are able to survive in this dry, brown landscape.

As we approach the dam, converging ranks of huge power pylons like slouching gunslingers show that something big is happening in the middle of all this nothingness; but when we arrive at the dam, "big" seems a hopelessly inadequate description.

Stretching across 1.6 kilometres between granite cliffs, the dam rises 46 storeys high and contains nine million cubic metres of concrete. Inside it, more than 3000 kilometres of water pipes snake through, incorporated to speed up the curing process when the concrete was poured, which would otherwise have taken centuries to cool and harden. Three power plants at its base produce more kilowatts of electricity than any other dam in the United States; laughably, back when the ground was first broken in 1933, there were grave doubts that so much electricity would ever be needed.

The dam was conceived primarily as a means of harnessing the waters of the Columbia River to irrigate the arid plateau lands. The plan was to block off the coulee - a deep narrow canyon gouged out during the last Ice Age - and use the power plants to pump water from the storage lake for distribution through a network of canals that today total almost 4000 kilometres. Hugely expensive for the time, it received a vital funding boost from President F D Roosevelt's Public Works Administration, part of his New Deal to ease unemployment during the Depression.

Despite its obvious value as a make-work scheme, there was still public resistance to the project, and part of the government's propaganda was paying Woody Guthrie US$266 to spend a month writing catchy songs promoting this and other dams under construction along the river. All too familiar with unemployment himself, he churned out 26 ballads altogether, Roll On, Columbia becoming his signature song.

Over the eight years of its construction, 12,000 people worked at generous pay rates from US85c to US$1.20 an hour, depending on skill. In the excellent Visitor Centre by the dam, recorded personal testimonies give life to the figures: Cecil Scott declares, "Boy, that was hard work! But if you didn't work, there was 10 guys waitin' to get your job" - even if that involved using cumbersome jackhammers 100 metres up a cliff (75 workers died on the job, most of them by falling) or setting explosives in cramped conditions.

The Second World War changed the focus to generating electricity to power the aluminium plants, aircraft factories, shipyards and even the plutonium refinery that fuelled the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Grand Coulee Dam was the nation's main power producer for the war effort, and thus played a essential part in world history - but not without cost.

The blocking of the Columbia halted forever the wild salmon runs to the spawning grounds in its upper reaches, thus destroying the way of life of the local Native American tribes, who depended on the fish for their primary food source.

A sad part of the display at the Centre, the voices of Spokane and Colville Indians tell how they watched the waters rise and flood their villages, meeting places and burial grounds, and describe the Ceremony of Tears that took place as Kettle Falls, their most important and abundant fishing site, was submerged. Displaced and deprived, one says with feeling, "Promises made by the government were written in the sand and then covered with water like everything else".

Looping back to Chelan over plains now green with winter wheat and threaded by power cables taking electricity across the country, it is sobering to reflect that if the project were to be proposed today, environmental and cultural considerations would probably prevent its ever getting off the ground. The Columbia would still run freely to the sea, the salmon would still swarm up into its headwaters, and the local Indian tribes would still have a life and a history along its length. But then we would be without the Eighth Wonder of the World: "The mightiest thing ever built by a man".

Pamela Wade travelled around Washington as a guest of Washington State Tourism.



TOURS:  The Grand Coulee Dam visitor centre runs free daily guided tours, and there is a nightly laser show throughout the summer: usbr.gov/pn/ grandcoulee/ Stay locally or in Chelan, campbellsresort.com; see also ExperienceWA.com

GETTING THERE: Washington state packages, with return flights, a San Francisco stopover and rental car, are available from House of Travel. Flights are with Air New Zealand and partner airlines to Seattle, including two nights at Radisson Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco, two nights at Mayflower Park Hotel, Seattle, in a standard room, and a seven-day Hertz Intermediate car hire. Total price: from $3565 a person, twin share. Sales until February 18 for travel May 1-31. Phone 0800 838 747.

The Press